US and Russia look for international aid to shut down Russia’s production reactors

Publish date: April 15, 2005

Written by: Charles Digges

In what has become an increasingly unpredictable, expensive and far overdue programme, the US Department of Energy (DOE) and its Russian counterparts are seeking international donations in their project to shut the last three remaining weapons-grade plutonium production reactors in Russia.

News Analysis

The weapons-grade plutonium producing reactors, two of which are located in the central Siberian city of Seversk, near Tomsk, and the other in Zheleznogorsk, near Krasnoyarsk—are the last three of Russia’s 13 production rectors to be shut down. The United States’ 14 production reactors have all been halted.

The reactor shut-down program which was originally part of the US Department of Defense’s Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) programme efforts in 1997, was in 2002 reassigned to the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Nuclear Safety Administration (NNSA), which spearheads DOE threat reduction efforts with Russia. The programme is currently known as the Elimination of Weapons-Grade Plutonium Production programme, and will replace the reactors with fossil fuel plants.

Both the original and current programmes have experienced cost overruns that are equal to more than 100 percent of their respective anticipated costs. The joint US-Russian effort has now taken its troubles, hat in hand, before the international community to solicit further funding for the project.


The DOE has requested $132 million for the program in its fiscal year 2006 budget request, a 200 percent increase over the 2005 allocation. NNSA Administrator Linton Brooks, in a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee March 2, said that the budget request was “fully adequate” to shut down the two nuclear reactors at Seversk, the web-based Arms Control Today reported.

But shutting down the third Russian plutonium-producing reactor in Zheleznogorsk entails constructing a new fossil fuel plant, a venture that, according to the DOE, requires at least $100m from international donors to meet its completion target date of 2011, said the web site.

The DOE’s budget request for fiscal year 2006, if it is approved by US Congress, will de-emphasise funding for activities at Zheleznogorsk compared to the fiscal year 2005 allocation because of the current emphasis on closing the two reactors at Seversk, and in anticipation of heightened international support for the Zheleznogorsk.

The DOE, which in 2002 estimated project costs for building replacement fossile fuel plants at less than $470m, revised its position in 2003 after re-auditing cost projections to accommodate Russian inflation, rising labor costs, and contractor fees. Though the project baseline cost will not be determined by Moscow and Washington until June, reported Arms Control Today, nuclear officials on both sides of the ocean interviewed by Bellona Web have estimated that cost could skyrocket to nearly $1 billion.

Cash begins to drip in
On February 8th and 9th, the United States took its first steps toward soliciting outside help by holding a conference in Spiez, Switzerland in an effort to convince attending states like Canada, Finland, Italy, the Netherlands, Russia, Slovakia, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom to pony up with donations, Arms Control Today reported.

The conference, primarily sponsored by the Swiss government, discussed how to shift these communities away from the nuclear industry. Russian officials asked for aid in cleaning up decommissioned sites and creating new employment opportunities for thousands of nuclear workers who will be left jobless when the reactors are shut down.

So far, the United Kingdom has pledged $20m to the effort, to be spread over a three-year period, and Canada has offered US $7m, spokesmen for both governments told Bellona Web.

The history of the shut down agreement
Agreement to shut the reactors down was reached by the Gore-Chernomyrdin commission—a lose confederation between Clinton-era Vice President Al Gore and then Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin—in 1994. The agreement stipulated that the reactors would no longer be producing weapons grade plutonium by “no later than 2000.”

That agreement has overshot its deadline by several years, and according to accounts given by both Russian and DOE officials who have spoken to Bellona Web on the condition of anonymity, there is as yet, not even a blueprint as to how to begin decommissioning the three reactors.

The joint effort, according to the Russian and US officials, employs at least 17 contractors—each of which has its own set of subcontractors, and all of whom are waiting for clear marching orders that have yet to be hammered out by US officials. A US General Accounting Office (GAO) report indicated in June 2004 that the sheer number of entities involved in the shutdown process, and the upwardly spiraling costs, threatened to collapse the programme under its own bureaucratic weight.

The new official date for their closure was estimated in 2003 by another former Russian prime minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, and his US counterparts to be 2008 for Tomsk and 2011 for Zheleznogorsk—a figure many in the DOE consider to be overly optimistic.

CTR’s handoff of the shut down programme
The main shift in emphasis between the CTR programme and the DOE programme is the disposition of the reactors themselves. Both reactors provide heat and power for the approximately 400,000 residents of the closed cites, plus a portion of residents on Tomsk’s power grid.

Originally, CTR had planned on a so-called core conversion project for the reactor. Core conversion in theory changes a reactor’s physics and makes it less likely to catch fire in the event that it looses coolant. It also allows reactors to run at reduced power levels, allowing for a margin of error should an emergency arise.

But the US core conversion process—originally estimated to cost $80m—had numerous fundamental and dangerous engineering flaws, say US physicists who were involved with the erstwhile project.

Addressing these basic oversights soon ballooned the cost of core conversion to $800m.

Soon thereafter, US government audits suggested the most effective means of shutting down the reactors while still maintaining heat and power for the concerned communities was to build or refurbish fossil fuel plants that are located nearby Seversk and Zheleznogorsk—at the previously anticipated cost of some $470m.

The bomb-grade plutonium keeps coming
As the reactors themselves have been kept running for the stated purpose of heating and powering their respective communities, it follows that the estimated 1,200 to 1,500 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium—enough to make some 300 warheads a year— that they produce would be rendered “surplus” as per the 2000 US-Russia Plutonium Disposition agreement.

This agreement signed by former US president Bill Clinton and Russian President Vladimir Putin, stipulated that each country will dispose of 34 tonnes each of weapons-grade plutonium declared surplus to its military need. The primary method for disposing of the fuel was mandated by the Bush administration to be via the use of MOX, or mixed uranium and weapons-grade plutonium fuel in specially retrofitted commercial reactors—despite the significantly lower costs of immobilization.

But the MOX programme hit a brick wall in late 2003 when the US State Department refused to renew an earlier 5-year-long research and information exchange agreement signed in 1998 between the two countries. The State Department’s refusal to renew the programme was its insistence that 1998 agreement be renegotiated to include all stipulations in the CTR “Umbrella Agreement,” which was designed to exempt US nuclear dismantlement efforts in Russia from all liability. The Russians remain opposed to the “Umbrella Agreement.”

Originally, the Russia side had agreed to incorporate at least that plutonium produced at the Seversk and Zheleznogorsk reactors, which is stored in oxide form on site at the respective plants. But the head of Russia’s Federal Agency for Atomic Energy (Rosatom)—the defunct Ministry of Atomic Energy’s successor—Alexander Rumyantsev has in recent months issued ambiguous statements about the fate of the plutonium produced in Seversk and Zheleznogorsk, largely, say Russian nuclear regulatory officials, out of frustration with the hard line US policies on liability and the uncertainty that the 2000 Plutonium Disposition agreement will ever reach the stage of implementation.

The US and Russia have also turned to the international community for donations toward building Russia’s industrial scale MOX fabrication plant, which carried an estimated price tag of $2 billion. So far, only $800m has been forthcoming and few G-8 member countries have expressed interest in donating to the project.

Even if the plan were built, though, it will require millions of dollars more for Russia to retrofit and build new reactors capable of handling the fuel in order to meet the 2000 agreement’s stipulated weapons-grade plutonium disposition quota of 2 tonnes per year.

Meanwhile, Russia’s plutonium stocks, thanks to the Zheleznogorsk and Seversk reactors, will have increased by at least 3 tonnes—enough for an estimated 3000 warheads—beyond the original shut down date of 2000 by the project shut down date of 2008.